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Wisconsin at the end of the 19th century


Victor Louis Berger
Victor Louis Berger

For the rest of the century, many other movements campaigned for reform, including the Greenback Party and the Populist Party. But little was accomplished in Wisconsin until after 1900, when a group of political reformers known as Progressives gained control of the Republican Party. In their crusade for reform on a state and national level, the Progressives were led by Robert Marion La Follette, governor of Wisconsin from 1901 to 1906 and a U.S. senator from 1906 to 1925.

La Follette and the Progressive Republicans believed that a government should conscientiously serve its people, and they sought to restrict the power of big business when it interfered with the needs of the individual citizen. Specialists in law, economics, and several social and natural sciences, most from the faculty of the University of Wisconsin, participated in political reform in the state, helping legislators to draft laws and serving as experts on governmental commissions. This collaboration became known as the Wisconsin Idea.

During La Follette’s three terms as governor he won passage of a number of landmark reform laws. Anti-corruption and civil-service measures were passed. Direct primary elections were established, which gave voters, not conventions run by political bosses, the power to select candidates for public office. The powerful railroads came under state regulation and were made to pay their share of the state’s taxes. Later the railroad commission was given power to regulate other public utilities. Laws were also passed to help farmers form cooperatives to purchase supplies and sell their products directly.

Wisconsin continued to pass reform legislation after La Follette had left the state to serve in the U.S. Senate, especially while Francis S. McGovern was governor from 1911 to 1915.

The Wisconsin legislature in 1911 created the nation’s first effective worker’s compensation program to protect workers injured on the job; passed laws to regulate factory safety and working hours for women and children; established a state income tax and state life insurance fund; and passed forest and waterpower conservation acts. Many of these social and industrial reforms were supported by a third party, Wisconsin’s Socialists. They were led by Victor Louis Berger, who helped found the national Social Democratic Party in the late 1890s with labor leader Eugene V. Debs. It was later reorganized as the Socialist Party. With a base of support among German immigrants, the Wisconsin Socialists were most powerful in Milwaukee, winning most city and county offices in 1910. That year, Berger became the first Socialist elected to Congress, and a number of Socialists were elected to the state legislature.

La Follette took his reform campaign to a national stage in 1924, when he ran for president as the candidate of the Progressive Party. He was overwhelmingly defeated, but received more than 4.8 million votes, about 16.5 percent of the total. After his death in 1925, his family continued to play a major role in Wisconsin and national politics. "Wisconsin" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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